The Assad regime has shown it has almost no limits to its brutality, with daily reports of civilian deaths emerging as the Syrian Civil War enters a third year.
And while the regime claims to care for the benefit of its people, it has shown that its primary concern is securing the coastal region of Syria where many of the members of the Alawite minority live or have fled to.
With millions living on the edge of dire straits and bread shortages around the country, not to mention the truly harrowing refugee situation that has been created along or just over the borders in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq – the opposition both in Syria and its quasi-connected political leadership abroad are finding the job of keeping up morale difficult. All of this comes along with relatively lukewarm support from America and the EU up against strong support for Assad’s regime from China, Iran, and Russia.
Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, president of the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Opposition, seems to be struggling to maintain international relevance after refusing to travel to Moscow to discuss a compromise with the Russians. In addition, he may have satisfied some hard-liners, but he missed another opportunity when he rebuffed American efforts to get the National Coalition to decry the tactics of the al-Nusra Front militia, which has ties to al-Qaeda.
One of the Vice Presidents of the same organization, Suhair al-Atassi, despite being labeled by at least one analyst as the “Lady of the Revolution” and commanding respect among the intellectual and secular political opposition, has received little press and has rarely influenced events on the ground. In recent Facebook and Twitter posts she indicated that there has been a “mad campaign” against her within the National Coalition, and she denounced its reactionary atmosphere.
Several reports have emerged of anti-Assad Syrians who are afraid of the various tactics of the highly factionalized Free Syrian Army (FSA)
This fear stems from accusations of theft, kidnapping, and their rough occupation of buildings and urban neighborhoods, which then become targets for the regime. There have even been reports of rape, torture and summary executions carried out by the FSA.
The complicated relationship that the FSA now has with the al-Nusra Front (NF) has not helped matters for the general morale of the opposition. The NF has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings, many of which had high civilian costs. For some of the opposition, particularly those not directly involved in the fighting, the NF seems like one of the best organizations for its forward strike capabilities. For others, the NF is a largely destructive force bent on sectarian revenge killings, and may add legitimacy to claims of the regime that the opposition has been infiltrated by “foreign terrorists.”
Members of the NF who have given interviews to foreign journalists admit that there are foreigners, including those who were connected on some level to al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The long porous desert border between Iraq and Syria creates fears in both countries that al-Qaeda operatives will be established for some time and possibly wreak havoc in Sunni-Shia relations in both countries leading to destabilization and possibly an even wider scale conflict in Iraq than the now ongoing Sunni-Shia-Kurdish tension.
The various ideologies and notions of authority, combined with sharply divergent views on the place of religion in official politics may create problems for the Syrian opposition. The external political leadership is moderately religious and secular, while the fighting groups have tended to flaunt their commitment to Sunni Islam. Some analysts have viewed the displays of the fighters of religious habits, like the ubiquitous beards, bandanas, and prayer rallies seen on FSA videos on YouTube as pleas for funding from Salafi and Islamist groups based in the Gulf region.
Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded organizations have gained the upper hand in Egypt and Turkey, two of the region’s largest players. Displays of religiosity would hardly dent support for the FSA among the leadership of those countries.
The uncertainty hanging around who carried out the deadly bombings at Aleppo University last week raises a number of questions about whether it was on purpose or accidental. The fact that both sides blame each other point to one of at least two possible conclusions, that the bombings were intentional but meant to discredit the other side, or that they were somehow accidental in their scale and impact. If the FSA, and most likely its FN wing, were responsible for the blasts, it would seem that widespread knowledge of their involvement could turn the tide of public opinion against them.
If the government was responsible, and the bombing which killed about ninety civilians, mainly students on the first day of their exams, it would certainly seem to point to grave misuse Russian weaponry and an extreme level of violence against civilians, which has of course been witnessed in other cases, such as alleged regime bombings of bread lines in Aleppo and other places in northern Syria.
I believe that the brutality of the regime does not necessarily help the opposition. It may strengthen their resolve against Assad and his regime, but it still weakens public morale by underscoring the bottom line, which is that the longer the fighting goes on the more civilians will pay in blood and monetary damages. Syria has already reached a point where it will be very expensive to simply repair the material damages throughout the country, while the psychological and human costs are possibly irreparable on any time-scale.
Without firm NATO support for the opposition, a radical shift in Russian policy, or a sudden change of heart from Assad himself, allowing him to leave the political field and dissolve his inner circle’s the control over the Syrian Army, it is going to be tough going for the opposition. Perhaps this is what the Syrian regime is hoping for.
This article has been updated since original publication in Sharnoff’s Global Views.
Joel Parker is a doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University. He speaks Arabic, French, and Hebrew and his dissertation is a sociopolitical history of the origins of the Baʿth Party in Syria.